The Death Penalty By Lethal Injection: Is the End Near?

By: Samantha Lewis

Prisons across the United States are scrambling to respond to a lethal injection shortage that is plaguing the American penitentiary system. In 2011, Hospira Inc., the sole manufacturer of an anesthetic widely used in lethal injections, sodium thiopental, halted production of the drug. The drug was produced at a plant in Italy, but Italian authorities refused the continued export of sodium thiopental if it was going to be used for the purpose of capital punishment. Consequently, Hospira exited the market as a result of its inability to produce the drug domestically. Many states also utilized the sedative pentobarbital, but the main supplier, Danish-based Lundbeck, also restricted its export for capital punishment in 2011.

Facing further backlash from authorities across the European Union in opposition of capital punishment, states across America have been forced to resort to other methods of execution. In Ohio, Dennis McGuire was sentenced to death for rape and fatally stabbing Joy Stewart in 1989. Joy Stewart was 22 years old and pregnant at the time of her murder. The state utilized an intravenous combination of midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller, to put McGuire to death. The method has been part of Ohio’s execution process since 2009, but never utilized until McGuire’s execution. Despite pleas from McGuire’s legal team and anesthesiologist to spare McGuire from this process because it would subject him to cruel and unusual punishment, a federal judge permitted the execution. The judge based the decision on the lack of evidence of the new drug combination having serious potential to inflict harm on McGuire.

Despite the lack of evidence, Dennis McGuire took more than fifteen minutes to die and appeared to gasp and snort throughout the entire ordeal. The entire execution lasted 26 minutes, the longest since Ohio resumed capital punishment in 1999 according to an Associated Press analysis of all 53 logs of executions maintained by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The records show that most inmates took fifteen minutes or less to die over the past fifteen years. McGuire’s family members filed a federal lawsuit on January 24, 2014, calling for a moratorium on the lethal injection practice on the constitutional grounds of the Eight Amendment regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

In response to McGuire’s execution, many capital punishment states are seeking alternatives to lethal injection. Representative Rick Brattin (Rep.-MO) and Senator Bruce Burns (Rep.-WY) are both suggesting legislation over the impending weeks regarding a return to firing squads. Further, the Arkansas attorney general suggested using the electric chair. On January 8, 2014, a bill (HB 1052) was introduced to Virginia’s General Assembly that would grant prison officials permission to use the electric chair if lethal injection is not feasible. The Republican controlled subcommittee approved the measure on a 4-1 party-line vote. Delegate Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County), vehemently opposed the bill on the grounds that “electrocution cannot do what it does without mutilating a person. It causes burns. It causes organs to cook.”

While numerous state governments and the media are preoccupied with the treatment of prisoners facing the death penalty since McGuire’s execution, it is of utmost importance to put the victims’ families first. Why should we treat the killer with the paramount care while his or her crimes were far from humane? Dennis McGuire’s victim, Joy Stewart, was 22 years old and 30 weeks pregnant at the time of her death. McGuire choked her. Then, he stabbed her twice in the throat with the knife he used to forcibly rape her. He slashed her throat cutting so deeply both her carotid artery and jugular vein were severed. And after her death, McGuire dumped her in a wooded area. Stewart’s husband, Kenny, committed suicide less than a year after her murder.

This country lost three young lives with a potential to make a lifetime mark on the community to a cold-blooded killer. In my opinion, if state governments desire to maintain capital punishment with lethal injection, they should allocate funds to expedite further research into an alternative formula that reduces the time and enhances the viability of the method of execution. Although there is no easy solution regarding the practice of capital punishment, we should not highlight the needs of prisoners who committed these heinous crimes that placed them on death row to begin with. Rather, the media and government should emphasize the lives of the victims lost and the greatness they brought to their respective communities.

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